Most detective novelists are not former private detectives. Most thriller writers are not, in fact, computer hackers. And most spy novelists have never set foot anywhere near the CIA. Some, however, do have experiences with the world of subterfuge and the ambiguous political climate in which shadowy organizations work best, and whether they be Graham Greene, John le Carré, or in the case of His Own Man, Edgard Telles Ribeiro, they not only write good spy fiction – they write great spy fiction. Ribeiro began work in the Brazilian Foreign Service in 1967, three years after a CIA-backed military coup, and he has obeyed the old writing adage, write what you know, to great effect.
His Own Man, Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s 2011 novel of Brazilian intrigue and political compromise, was released in the US last year, beautifully translated by Kim Hastings. His Own Man is the latest addition to the growing body of literature struggling to process the lingering effects of South America’s long list of casualties to the Cold War.
Ribeiro tells the classic spy fiction narrative of a clandestine organization working to achieve a conservative military coup and then enacting a purge of all elements deemed “subversive” with the aid of CIA cold warriors. Although the story, in its grander elements, is familiar, Ribeiro manages to capture both an insider and outsider perspective on the Dirty Wars of South America through the unique part played by his homeland. Brazil, as the first to fall victim to dictatorship post-Cuban Revolution, acts as a staging ground in the novel for Brazilian agitators to go to other Latin American nations and work, covertly, to achieve the demise of other liberal democracies with the blessings of the American government.
His Own Man is not just the tale of Brazilian political conspiracy; it is also the story of a man. Marcílio Andrade Xavier, or Max, protagonist and symbolic source of all Latin America’s travails, uses his interloper position to great effect, playing off his superiors in the foreign ministry (first in the liberal government, then in the conservative, and then the liberal again), his handlers in the secret service, his wife, his friends, and his compatriots in the elaborate dance of the consummate insider. Max’s sole motivating factor is his own ambition, and as a political chameleon, he merely takes on whatever the most suitable appearance may be to achieve the next promotion. Max is, in short, the kind of man who always does well, and is the consummate gentleman spy who, through his amoral actions, strips all meaning from the ever-shifting ideologies of his superiors.
Max is a stand-in for the country itself, and for any other Eichman-like figures who supported the dictatorship without contemplating the moral cost. He is ever adaptable, able to weather any storm, yet trapped in his context and vulnerable to outside manipulation. Max’s outsider/insider status is underlined by Ribeiro’s choice of narrator, an old friend and disappointed colleague of Max, determined to construct a portrait of a man verging on mythical through hazy memories and disjointed interviews: a partial fingerprint of an amorphous individual, and the reader is left to fill in the blanks.
Ribeiro writes spies and diplomats who would not be out of place in the work of Graham Greene, Alan Furst, or any other articulate master of espionage. His pages are filled with cheerfully cultured personalities whose ability to quote Montaigne or Walter Benjamin in no way detracts from their ability to remove someone’s fingernails in a torture chamber, or at least play poker with the torturer on his lunch break. Culture and paranoia, romance and appearances, open boulevards and hushed conversations, and the slow spread of dictatorship across an entire continent, worst in those places that thought themselves immune – these are the contradictions that His Own Man inhabits, processes, and makes the writer’s own.
Copies of His Own Man are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.